Book review: Jana Elhassan’s The Ninety-Ninth Floor – a look at Lebanese family dynamics
When Jana Elhassan’s The Ninety-Ninth Floor appeared in 2014, she was already a literary wunderkind. Her second novel, Me, She and the Other Women (2013) made the shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction when she was just 28. Two years later, when The Ninety-Ninth Floor was shortlisted for the prize, she was still the youngest on the list.
The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Elhassan’s first novel to be translated into English, by the distinguished Michelle Hartman. The novel, like its towering title, promises a sweeping story of star-crossed love, staged between the gritty violence of Lebanon’s Civil War and one of New York City’s richest, tallest buildings.
This staging evokes the populist romances of Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostaghanemi: Majd is a poor Palestinian refugee crippled in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres, committed by Phalangist militia. Hilda is from a privileged Christian family in rural Lebanon, the beloved daughter of a powerful Phalangist leader.
Majd and Hilda meet in New York City in the late 1990s, far from their families. Hilda came to dance while Majd runs a nebulous self-made business. This is not a real New York City, but a mythological one: of skyscrapers and tunnels, wealth and trash, where people can forget their pasts and start anew.
Early in the novel, Majd takes Hilda to the airport, and she travels back to Lebanon to spend time with her family. We don’t know if Hilda will ever return to their shared life. The novel’s long middle section frets about this lost love in Majd’s voice.
The story sags through its long, brooding middle. Majd is never clear in the novel’s eye, nor are the secondary characters who echo and amplify his woes. Key among the supporting characters are Majd’s cousin Muhammad, who stayed behind in the refugee camp and who also loves a Lebanese woman; the failed Lebanese-American businessman Mohsen/Mike; and a Mexican-American actress named Eva. The middle suffers through long, pointless arguments about whether Eva really had an abortion or just feigned it to upset Mohsen/Mike.
But all this is misdirection. The novel blossoms at the end, when Hilda tells her story. Back in Lebanon, Hilda and her family come vibrantly to life. There are sharp and revealing conflicts between Hilda and her father, Hilda and her elder sister, Hilda and her mother, and Hilda and the entire community, as this continues to paper over the atrocities of war.
This is the real novel. Here, Hilda can hardly remember New York City. The details of the city slip away, but this slipping-away serves a narrative purpose. What matters is that the city changed Hilda. Narrating her story to Majd, a distant “enemy” lover, further widens the gulf between Hilda and her family.
In Lebanon, the reader can taste and touch the family’s struggles. Hilda’s elder sister, once the family’s golden child, became an addict, because of the drugs their father procured for the young militiamen. This elder sister was bundled off as a semi-captive in her father’s ivory-coloured Mercedes and forced into a sanatorium. After that, young Hilda stepped into the role of daddy’s favourite.
Hilda’s father opposed the idea of her dancing in New York City – until his black sheep eldest daughter opposed it too. Even though Hilda’s father never saw his daughter perform, and surely disapproved of modern dance, he came to take pride in the idea of “his name” becoming known in New York City.
Post-NYC, Hilda sees things differently, and she is shocked that her elder sister doesn’t resent their father. Quite the opposite: her sister struggles to regain their father’s good opinion of her. Hilda, however, is angry. “Would he understand that the drugs he’d given other people’s children got to his daughter, that the wounds afflicting the victims’ bodies found their way also into our hearts?”
The family wants Hilda back within the fold, but they’re also outraged at how she’s changed. As an uncle tells her, late in the book: “You abandoned everything completely and were so distant from us, and then all of a sudden you came back wanting simply to hold us accountable.”
Ultimately, The Ninety-Ninth Floor makes us climb too long through Majd’s watery, non-specific struggles. When we come to Hilda’s story, we see what the novel could have been: a powerful look at post-Civil War Lebanese family dynamics. Despite the wrong turn, Elhassan’s third novel shows promise. Hopefully, future novels will stay closer to the ground.
M Lynx Qualey is an editor and book critic with a focus on Arabic literature and translation issues. She edits the website arablit.org
Updated: December 8, 2016 04:00 AM